I have a predilection for intimate dramas that unfold in realistic, slice of life segments. I’m a political junkie and care deeply about the issues of our day. And, I very much want to see more women telling stories about women on screens large and small.
That being the case, Runoff is my kind of indie pic.
This is writer-director Kimberly Levin’s feature debut, and it’s a promising start informed by a rich perspective that yields a powerful film. There is an authenticity to the film that emerges from Levin’s growing up in Kentucky and her background as a biochemist, but ultimately it’s the little details and larger emotional truths in her storytelling that carry this beautifully photographed film.
Joanne Kelly, whose rural roots rest in a Newfoundland fishing village, gives a particularly strong performance as Betty, a farm worker, wife, and mother under intense pressure to try to figure out how to save their home and enhance future prospects for her children.
In the press kit promoting Runoff, Levin gives her own summary: “The film tells the story of people who are living close to the land, who understand better than most the compromises we make by putting this moment in front of legacy. Because legacy is this abstract thing we project to some distant time in the future. Until it isn’t. Until a choice we make today catches up with us a little faster than we thought it would. We make these little bargains every day.”
This is not a conventional story championing environmental issues or one staging a David and Goliath encounter between the farmer and the bad corporation or, even, one revealing generational and personality fissures between the farmer dad and the artist son.
Runoff is better than that.
There is no focus here on good and evil or right and wrong as neat categories or on coming of age as a timeless formula but, instead, a grappling with how to make the least damaging compromise amid terrible constraints and surprising pitfalls.
And, throughout all of it, Levin’s choices are carefully crafted while still flowing naturally from the situations at hand.
Here’s an example of how her thinking about theme technique merge on screen, “There’s a moment in Runoff where Betty is literally backed into a corner in a dairy and offered a deal,” says Levin. “We can feel the pressure on her, as she’s surrounded by the hydraulic pumping of milking machines, the claustrophobia of the animals’ bodies, the harsh glare of the industrial light. We can feel time collapsing around her. The decision she makes in this moment will have effects that she has no way to measure.”
The focus on Betty is consistent.
We don’t learn a lot about the details of the family business she runs with her husband. We don’t learn a lot about the company trying to take over the farm. We don’t learn a lot about the illness confronting her husband.
But, we learn all we need to know about Betty and the pressures she feels and choices she makes, and we understand why she chooses as she does in way we could never glean from a newspaper article or, probably, from scores of them.